Every year when spring arrives I can’t resist growing tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum). And every year, around this time in the dog-days of summer, I vow never to grow the bloody things again.
After the gloom of winter the temptation to grow this most fecund and prolific of fruits, this very symbol of sunshine, this culinary essential, always proves overwhelming. They are almost too easy to raise from seed: as shown by the veritable forest of tomato plants that sprout readily around sewage works. I take a few seeds from shop-bought tomatoes that have some flavour, dry them out on a piece of paper, pop them into pots of damp compost and plonk them on a sunny window-sill. Within weeks they’re sturdy little plants ready to be moved on to big pots of humus-rich soil and by May a couple of the strongest specimens go outside into the south-west facing garden in a sheltered position against the back wall of the house. A massive crop is guaranteed so long as I remember that they will need watering every single day, even when it’s raining, and often twice or three times a day if it’s hot and dry, plus a regular weekly feed with a balanced, organic liquid fertiliser. If that wasn’t hassle enough, because tomato is a weak-stemmed creeping vine it has to be carefully staked and supported and very quickly becomes an unstable, many-branched giant that can reach 3m (10ft) high, frequently requiring emergency propping-up and extra buttressing whenever the wind is anything more than a light breeze. On top of this, the half-hardy bush must be cossetted with round-the-clock attention: extraneous side-shoots pinched out, lower leaves removed as it grows, yellowing leaves cut off, growing tips nipped out to encourage swelling of the fruit, and fruits gathered as soon as they ripen. They are high maintenance, solipsistic attention-seekers and I can’t take any more!
This year I’ve grown cherry tomatoes for a change and the harvest is immense. Unable to face one more passata or tomato salad, I am increasingly reduced to making soup – the simplest solution to every glut – just to get rid of another bucket-load before they rot.
2 tbsp olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 stick of celery, sliced
1kg (2lb) cherry tomatoes, halved
250ml (½pint) vegetable stock
a stalk of basil
a bay leaf
salt and pepper
1) In a large pot, gently fry the onion, garlic and celery in the oil until soft
2) Add the tomatoes, stock and herbs
3) Cover with a lid and cook slowly until the tomatoes are breaking up
4) Take off the heat, remove the herbs, leave to cool for a while then blitz with a stick blender
5) Push through a sieve, return to the pot, season and re-warm – it’s better than Heinz, I assure you.
Tomatoes are now so fundamental to global cuisine, it’s hard to imagine what people ate before Spanish conquistadors ‘discovered’ them growing wild in their Central and South American native habitats in the 16th century, brought specimens back to Europe and spread their use across the world to the point where the tomato is now the most produced and consumed vegetable of all. Botanically speaking, as the berry of a flowering plant, tomato is of course a fruit but – like peppers, squashes, beans, cucumbers, aubergines and avocados for instance – low sugar-content and savouriness mean it is always treated as a vegetable. Nobody has yet made a tomato cake – which I wish I hadn’t mentioned because now Heston Blumenthal or whoever is going to concoct some inedible abomination. In Cymru tomatoes from the Mediterranean countries or grown locally in greenhouses were familiar in the 18th century and widely available by the 19th. Before that, sauces just had to be made with butter, milk, cream, eggs, beer, vinegar and loads of herbs and spices; nobody felt deprived, because, as the old saying goes, what the eye doesn’t see, the heart doesn’t grieve over (think on it, technological-fix neophiliacs).
As with all the commodities of Agribusiness, the modern commercial tomato is a debased, watery travesty, selectively bred over decades to ripen uniformly and vividly red at the expense of taste, drenched in fertilisers and pesticides to counteract the multitude of diseases that afflict the alien cultivar, and pumped up by sophisticated hydroponics in vast industrial-scale greenhouses from California to China. The ones that end up in the ‘fresh food’ aisles of the supermarkets are the worst, picked green and unripe and transported and stored with ethylene to artificially ripen. This facilitates the profit-maximising, bottom-scraping ‘just in time’ supply chains (currently being exposed as totally unfit for purpose by the consequences of Brexit) and means the tomatoes appear appealingly plump and red on the supermarket shelves. But they perish rapidly and have even less flavour than usual since flavour only develops with natural ripening. Tinned tomatoes are a better buy as they are picked and processed when fully ripe; everyone knows this, hence cans of chopped tomatoes are a store-cupboard staple everywhere. Better still are home grown; merely being out in the open air and pollinated as nature intended by insects ramps up the umami taste to a different league. Yes, they’re a time-consuming pain in the arse; yes, they’re demanding, needy and uncontrollable; and yes, I’ve instructed my partner to smash the pots over my head if I start growing them again next year…but I don’t mean it.